Media errs by allowing itself to become the story
By Charlie Mitchell
To use an overused term, “Yuuge.”
The Trump administration has suckered the media into allowing itself to become the story.
Every president, every congressman, every Mississippi official, every mayor, every town councilman and more than a few litter commissioners have lamented not getting a fair shake in the press, some more often than others. The well-tested response by journalists has been to admit errors, when made, then refocus on the issue at hand, which is never the press. Never.
It’s not difficult to see how the press has been unable to avoid the vortex created by a shoot from the lip candidate, now president. Donald Trump didn’t follow the script. He was outed as a bully and a boor. He committed career-ending error after career-ending error, was exposed as fabricating facts time after time, and he got elected anyway.
Does the mass media lean left? Yes, that is also well-established through the decades. Conservatives, almost by definition, are happy with the status quo. They are not boat-rockers.
Journalists ask questions about society, about policy. How did things get this way? Can there be changes? We turn over rocks, read labels, probe. We ask people to look in the mirror and decide if they like what they see. People who think everything is peachy are not attracted to this line of work.
But it’s equally true that people who do what I do are not elected, licensed or authorized. The security guard at the shopping center has earned more certificates than any of us. And like the security guard, most of us live paycheck-to-paycheck and at the whim of corporate chiefs who ask themselves all day every day whether they can get along without us.
Our job — and we really like it — is to gather information we think is useful and relevant and relay it to you. It is a value proposition. If you don’t get value, you stop sharing your most precious asset, your time, with us. We are not now and have never been respected.
Go back several years — back when Trump was just another billionaire with bad hair — and Gallup surveys already ranked “journalist” low in ethics and honesty. How low? We were just ahead of lawyers, well ahead of governors and light years ahead of members of Congress, but lagged then and lag now behind many fields, including bankers, chiropractors and police officers. If we did not give ourselves awards, no one else would.
Media people being media people, we don’t hold each other up to scrutiny very often. In that way, we are like lawmakers who always say “very good friend” or “esteemed colleague” when speaking of other lawmakers instead of “absolute goofball” or “lazy idiot.”
The media has many shortcomings, including “playing to the narrative.” By any measure other than the Electoral College, Trump should not be president. So the current narrative is he will not be a good president, and there’s a lot of focus on his flaws.
His response is to state, flatly and repeatedly, that it’s all lies. And instead of reacting as media folk have in the past by nodding, smiling and sticking to the reporting the story, media folks are trying to justify their existence.
It could be said that journalists have brought a lot of this on ourselves by failing to do the leg work and fact-finding. We’ve let the blanks be filled in with stereotypes or, worse, statistics.
Also, there’s all-to-frequent reliance on interviewees who are experts in sounding as if they are saying something when they really aren’t. Sadly, some news organizations feel their job is done by allowing people on either side of an issue to have equal opportunity to spew empty verbiage. It’s not.
So, is there a cure?
Yes, and it’s kind of like training a puppy to paper. The powerful — including the president — love (and need) the ink and airtime the media provide. New rule: Stop interviewing those who have nothing to say.
If the president or any other public official spends 75 minutes of a 77-minute press conference attacking the media, mention it — but spend time and energy focused on what was said in the other two minutes.
Stop trying to one-up the president. Stop trying to earn respect. Understand that what people want from us is facts, context, perspective. Remember we are not the story; we are the storyteller.
History also shows that duplicitous folks who wind up in positions of public leadership usually fall on their own swords.
That’s how freedom of expression works, and it its greatest value.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.